ONE SCANDALOUS STORY: Clinton, Lewinsky, and Thirteen Days That Tarnished American Journalism.
Meditations on Monica Madness
JOURNALISM MAY BE HISTORY'S first draft, but journalists often now write the second draft as well. Many of the reporters who helped break the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal have now written books about the case, mixing gems from their notebooks with Woodwardesque narratives detailing their own hunt for the big journalistic prize. With so much already written, it's a challenge to find much worthwhile left to say. But veteran journalist-turned-Harvard-professor Marvin Kalb has managed to do so, writing a surprisingly brisk story focused not on the actors in the drama but on the journalists who covered it and how they often compromised professional standards while navigating the pressure-filled environment.
Kalb looks at the 13 days between January 13 and January 25, 1998 (The Washington Post broke the Lewinsky story on January 21), zeroing in on reporters, editors, and producers in a detailed narrative that traces various investigators as they piece together the story, and watches them as they plead with their editors to go to press, often only to be scooped by happenstance or bad luck. This minute-by-minute account, which fills roughly half the book, functions like an instant replay, slowing the torrent of events to an analyzable speed. Such an approach could have been tedious, but the result is a strikingly good read: Kalb generates surprising suspense by expanding the narrative to show just how little time journalists had to operate.
The second half of the book is an exacting--sometimes painfully exacting--analysis of the methods and sourcing standards reporters used in the scandal's first days. Like it or not, readers will learn the percentages of single-, double-, and triple-sourced stories; the ratios of off- to on-the-record comments; and numerous disapproving citations of the obfuscatory phrases ("ABC News has learned ...") used to bypass the pesky problem of sources altogether--a practice Kalb finds only slightly less offensive than Monica's semen-stained dress.
The highlight of Kalb's book is his careful dissection of one of the scandal's great non-stories: the allegation that a White House staffer--perhaps a Secret Service agent--had happened upon Clinton and Lewinsky in flagrante in the Oval Office. First reported by Jackie Judd on ABC News, several permutations of the story ricocheted around the media universe for days, eventually forcing embarrassing retractions from two of the nation's most prestigious papers, The Wall Street Journal and The Dallas Morning News. The false rumor captures the pitfalls journalists encounter when they ignore the by-the-book approach Kalb so sternly advocates.
The heroes in this episode are John Broder and Steve Labaton of The New York Times, who spiked their own story about the tryst's eyewitness at the last moment when they suddenly realized something their competitors did not: Their "sources" (four of them, in fact) were not really sources at all. The pressure on the pair was intense, not least because their story looked big enough to offset the Post's having scooped the Times in breaking the Lewinsky story. Yet careful last-minute spadework indicated that rather than four knowledgeable sources, what they actually had were, in Kalb's words, "four different people who seemed either to be echoing the Judd report [from ABC News] without any independent confirmation of their own or conveying and then embellishing a rumor they had heard about an agent `stumbling' upon the president with a young woman."
Like an echo chamber, the combustible scandal atmosphere had ricocheted a single rumor in so many directions that it seemed to many as though it were being confirmed from numerous sources. Only uncommon restraint and exacting self-scrutiny kept Broder and Labaton from falling into the trap that snared their peers. Later they learned that each of their four "sources" might actually have picked up the rumor from the same individual, former U.S. Attorney (and ubiquitous talking head) Joe DiGenova.
No one who seeks to understand how this scandal was covered and how well the media acquitted itself can afford to disregard Kalb's book. Yet if the anecdote of the "disappearing" witness highlights the strengths of Kalb's critique, it also exposes its limits: Kalb, like most contemporary media critics, emphasizes journalism's procedural details at the expense of a more substantive analysis.
What is most striking about the Lewinsky scandal is how many of the facts reported in the first hectic days of the story turned out to be accurate. The president really did have an affair with a 24-year-old intern; Tripp really did have explicit audiotapes of her conversations with Lewinsky; and there really was a semen-stained dress. Where the reporting broke down was not in gathering these facts but in interpreting them. To cite a key example, there really was a "talking-points memo" seemingly intended to guide Linda Tripp in falsifying her testimony. But the consensus among reporters that Lewinsky could not have been its author (she was too dumb)--and that therefore it must have originated in the Clinton camp (they were all unethical schemers)--proved to be false.
Kalb is neither indifferent to nor unaware of this distinction. But the framework of his indictment collapses when you pull back and realize the early coverage wasn't really all that bad. Sure, there were some screw-ups. Traditional sourcing standards did fray under the pressures of the moment. And reporting was mixed with a good deal of breathless speculation, particularly on ABC. But for the most part, reputable reporters played by the book and got their facts right.
The problem, if one must be identified, was not that reporters had too few sources or that they forced too few of them to talk "on the record." It was that most of their sources hailed from one side of the scandal--namely, from the Office of the Independent Counsel and its various allies. Consequently, most of the reporters covering the case came to reflexively credit Starr's interpretation of events. In doing so, journalists lost sight of the forest for the trees. If reporters such as The Washington Post's Susan Schmidt (who was notorious in this respect) had given readers more information about their sources, more of them might have grasped the stories' pervasive slant. But this begs the question: Why were the stories so slanted?
The answer lies in the intractable issues of bias, reporters' deeply ingrained attitudes towards the scandal's major players, and lapses of judgment too complicated to have been solved simply by hewing to the picayune rules of journalism. Kalb's critique never quite captures what was wrong. Getting at those issues would require media criticism that more closely resembles cultural or literary criticism--an intriguing prospect. In One Scandalous Story these issues lurk just beneath the surface. But in the same way the Lewinsky scandal frenzy blotted out the larger issues, Kalb's own journalistic strictures prevent them from breaking through.
JOSHUA MICAH MARSHALL writes the Talking Points Memo (j-marshall.com/talk) from Washington, DC.
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|Author:||Marshall, Joshua Micah|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2001|
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